With celebrity near misses, tennis ball fights and impromptu car park disco, Getintoths’ Paul Dorrian takes in the spectacular sights of ATP Iceland.
We’re standing outside a not-lavish hotel, that was originally built for American construction workers at the nearby former Nato Army base in Asbru. A 20-minute cab ride from Keflavik airport, Asbru is a huge industrial estate dotted with many gigantic, anonymous-looking sheds. The hotel is a pleasant 10-minute walk, under limitless skies to ATP 2015. Waiting to check in, we hear a woman’s voice screaming and wailing in one of the rooms upstairs. A Glaswegian helicopter engineer we’ve just met nudges us with a giggle “Someone’s already having a good time eh…”. A few minutes later, a darkly dressed American band quickly load their stuff into a brightly painted van. Not recognising them, we ask if they’re on the ATP bill and who they are. We’re not gonna mess up this time round.
A few hours earlier, at the airport, we fail to pick out the most influential rapper of his generation, Chuck D, as he trundled past us with the Public Enemy platoon in tow. He acknowledged our baffled face with a priceless “hey man” and continued to the coach taking them to Atlantic Studios, the ATP site. He disappears and seconds later, the unmistakeable Flavor Flav suddenly appears, like he’s just been beamed down. Dwarfed by his own trolley and wearing a green velour tracksuit, comedy-sized gold headphones and his ever-present clock, we suddenly wondered if he ever has problems getting that thing through security. We then realise he’s pushing his trolley in the opposite direction to Chuck’s. “Hey, Flavour!” we call in our suddenly fruity Belfast accent. “Your bus is over there, Chuck’s on it!”. “Thanks Buddy”, he says politely, as he does a heavy U-turn.
“I must remember faces better”, we tell ourselves about missing the chance to ask Chuck D a stupid question.
Back at the hotel, the band reveal they’re Chelsea Wolfe. They laugh in unison when we ask if one of their number is having loud sex in their room. “That’s Chelsea”, one replies. “She likes to warm up in her room”. Ah, just warming up her voice then, that’s nice. It did sound like a full-throttle shag though. Warmed up and ready, a raven-haired figure in a flowing chemise shirt bolts out of the hotel and leaps into the heaving Mitsubishi with the rest of the band. As they drive off, their solemn faces look pointedly funny behind the windows of the camper.
Our plane had landed without a fuss that morning, in contrast to the previous day’s commute to catch it on the hottest day of the year. That was exhausting and left us feeling as sleepy as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, when she nearly dies among the roses. Nothing could dampen our excitement though. We’ve waited years to see some of the bands on the ATP line up. The last festival we did was Glastonbury ’97. ATP has a lot to live up to. Marked by an always impressive roster, this boutique festival has become a byword for administrative chaos. Ticket problems, bizarre news updates and dodgy sound on the main stage, these are just some of the gripes that have been fired in their direction.
When we get there we don’t get a sense of the chaos as we enter the Atlantic Studio gates. There’s security, not too much, and a large crowd of chatty music fans in obscure t-shirts are already standing around drinking cans of lager.
The festival’s main stage is inside a gigantic hangar (of course), black on the inside, ugly on the out. Aside from a drab carpark for socialising and high-priced food, we are surrounded by sparse countryside that’s awash in lupin flowers. They are everywhere like, well, shit in a field. The alien flora was introduced to Iceland to combat erosion and now cover the landscape like a poor bit of Photoshopping. Clouds above us stretch for hundreds of miles, it seems. Iceland is a truly beautiful country. Close to the hangar are a number of other venues, one for dance acts, one for cinema (showing mostly horror) and a third for avant-garde acts – the kind who make gentle love to cellos in an hour-long set or who smash pianos with hammers. The following night, when we set out to find the dance “shed”, someone told us that it had been closed after a geezer (off his face on beer and snuff) set off a fire extinguisher and caused much damage to the electrics.
Black metal boyband Deafheaven are the first act we get to see on the main stage. They are really quite good. A cloudy day outside turns to spitting rain, it seems, as vocalist George Clarke squeals and squelches along to cool guitars like a man possessed. The loud, quiet, loud formula they’ve perfected doesn’t lose anything by comparison to countless other acts. These boys do it well and the polite ATP crowd appreciate it. They are very polite here, but it’s no surprise. Every single Icelander we meet is extremely friendly, cheerful and easy going.
A little later on the first day, South London’s The Bug’s set stabs the walls of the metal shed we’re entombed in. Main man Kevin Martin’s beats and apocalyptic samples are lost on a few but The Bug’s rappers gets them going by hurling rhymes like urban hymns. A lady vocalist brings the house down with a freestyle tribal solo.
Outside, in the car park, we buy fish and chips for £49* and tuck in. It’s pretty good eats, but the cost and portion size (there are as many chips as you would leave behind after a proper portion) mean we’re not full up. We check our watch and blink, it’s the evening but still daylight. The weather here’s yearly trick of unending days adds a wooziness to everything.
We are headed for a midnight sun and we venture indoors for Long Island’s Public Enemy. Sometimes in music, one of the best things is having your expectations blown out the water. Despite spotting them earlier and feeling blessed that we’d helped Flavor find his bus, we just weren’t expecting a great show. Holy shit were we wrong.
They stride out and instantly launch into a mesmerising set of classics and not-so-great new songs. Chuck D and Flavor swap cues like it’s 1989, the DJ, live instruments and peerless S1W support are utterly flawless. We’ve never seen anything like it. When Flavor pulls on a bass and slaps his way through a track, it’s not even close to corn.
Bring the Noise is perfect, so is Don’t Believe the Hype, during which Chuck finds time to launch into a rant about how his outfit uses “no fuckin’ autotune”. The biggest crowd for any band we see at ATP 2015 roars its approval. This is one of the best live gigs we’ve ever seen. Everything compliments everything else, the force of the lyrics, the gritty beats, Flav bounding across the stage like he’s paid for footsteps taken. The party only dips when Chuck woodenly insists on telling us about the new album, like an ill-tempered Spotify ad.
Afterwards, sonically refreshed, we head outside (to the carpark) and unwisely buy a burger. The parts that should be brown are pink, the parts that should be warm are cold. Luckily, we didn’t die and notice that tennis balls are being chucked around the car park.
During Iggy Pop’s golden oldie set, we see these balls again. This time they’re being hurled at his face. I Wanna Be Your Dog sees one of the green missiles narrowly missing Iggy’s head. A lock of his grey hair lifts up slightly as its flies past. Then another tennis ball…It misses Iggy again and appears to hit the drum kit, causing what looks like a minor explosion. The band carry on like nothing’s happened, advantage Iggy.
Much later, and after what seems like a 20-minute mic check, it’s time for Run the Jewels. If Public Enemy had killed it, Killer Mike and El-P are feeding on the carcass, in front of a much smaller crowd. They’re two of the best MCs currently doing it, but this feels too much like two men shouting at each other for an hour.
When we leave, we’re well into the next day and it still looks like noon outside. Our walk back to the hotel becomes a bit Hitchcockian when several seagulls in unison decide that the top of our head is the sworn enemy of their species and repeatedly swoop down on us with salty confidence.
Next day, we’re back for Grungefathers Mudhoney and Belle & Sebastian, amongst others. Mudhoney race through a good, workmanlike, but the crowd love it. Their appearance fits the ATP taste mood.
So many people are waiting for Belle & Sebastian though, we guestimated that every fifth T-shirt we saw was one of their album covers. Proper cult band like. Their set adds a slice of elegance to ATP, loveliness mopping up the dark. The masseuses giving out back rubs inside the venue smile broadly, people dance like no one’s watching. Ankle deep in empty cans, two ageing rockers fall on the floor in a clumsy hug. The light show momentarily turns the shed into a psychedelic snowstom. Iceland suddenly has a musical guest to match the fairytale scenery.
Having said that, Stuart Murdoch’s dance moves are a trial to endure. We actually had to leave for some fresh air as his 11-year-old-at-a-wedding boogie continued. Luckily, we could still enjoy the show. He’s very entertaining (when not dancing) and witty as hell. His dry wit lightens things further when he compares his band to Public Enemy. He launches into the first few lines of Fight the Power and gets the three-day festival’s biggest belly laugh.
When Godspeed You! Black Emperor shuffle onto the stage a little later, they take up their chairs, drum kits and instruments like an Irish fiddle band paid in Guinness. After playing their CDs to death for the last 15 years, it was a personal joy to see them at last. To a very tiny crowd, they run through a great rendition of their latest record Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress.. The set is loud, controlled, noirish and all conquering. The standout is Peasantry or Light! Inside of Light. It’s them at their best, a glorious central string melody masking a raucous guitar squall. Within its rhythms we see the unforthcoming Icelandic sunset, green fields, lupin and industry.
Steering clear of angry birds, we find a new route back to the hotel and bump into a Latvian bloke. Dressed in working clothes we ask if he’s doing building work or something in the shed he just exited. “No”, he laughs. “I am mining for bitcoin”. Pretending to understand what he’s talking about, we bid him adieu and set off to “Google it”. Turns out, in that large indistinct shed in the middle of Iceland, a Latvian man and (presumably) many others, are logging and locating the transfer of virtual currency throughout the world wide web and are somehow making money from it. Godspeed should do a track about this, we think.
The final day of ATP is packed with bands we’ve never heard of and the site has half the people it did on day one. People look tired, smoking and weary of beer. We catch some of noise sculptors Swans, noticing they have a gigantic gong on stage. “How much did that cost to get on the plane?” we ask a mate. “Probably skimmed it across the ocean to save money”, he says.
Avoiding another burger adventure, we leave ATP 2015 for the last time and notice a much bigger police presence. Some drunks are turfed out, looking through the window of the reception area, we notice one cop menacingly inspecting a carrier bag filled with broken smoke alarms. In the car park, a Mazda is parked with all doors open. It’s after 2am and about five teenage lads in Action Man-sized jeans and mop top haircuts are having an impromptu disco. On the car stereo, Howard Jones’ What is Love Anyway? Is turned up to 11. An unusual choice of music for an unusual setting that still somehow works. That’s ATP, that is.
Pictures by Getintothis’ Chris Huston.